Key battles will characterise Saturday’s clash at Wembley. Tim Stillman looks at the individual duels that will go some way to dictating the pattern of the Cup Final.
FRANCIS COQUELIN v JACK GREALISH
Grealish probably ranks alongside Hector Bellerin as one of the discoveries of the second half of the Premier League season. A local lad with the haircut of a World War 1 fighter pilot, Grealish has won the hearts and minds of the Villa faithful with some fearless performances in a roving number ten role. Sherwood frequently talks up his role as a developer of young talent and he certainly puts his money where his mouth is, having entrusted Grealish with a prominent first team role. Grealish works between the lines to provide the link between Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, two of Villa’s most dangerous players.
Coquelin will be tasked with looking after Grealish as he tries to pick up pockets of space close to Benteke. The Belgian striker also likes to drop deep in search of the ball, drawing out an opposing centre half in the process. This creates a void for Villa’s midfield runners to turn into, so Coquelin will certainly have to contend with a lot of traffic in his area of the pitch. Coquelin’s game is characterised by tough tackling and smart interceptions and his wits will need to be keen come Saturday.
FABIAN DELPH v SANTI CAZORLA
Two players that make their respective teams tick in the centre of midfield. Whilst Santi sets the technical rhythm and launches attacks with his close control and laser guided passing, Delph is much more in the box to box mould of central midfielder (though Delph has 3 assists and 36 chances created this season, the highest of any Villa player). Cazorla’s defensive instincts will need to be in tune alongside Coquelin at the base of Arsenal’s midfield. Benteke likes to draw defenders towards him in deep positions and this gives Delph space to break into behind the centre halves. Cazorla will need to be alive to this threat, as Coquelin is likely to be occupied by Grealish.
On the flipside, Delph will be briefed to try and disrupt Cazorla in possession, something Maroaune Fellaini and Ander Herrera successfully managed at Old Trafford a fortnight or so ago. Santi’s close control and dexterity provide problems for opposing midfielders, however. Get too close and he can skip around you with his wonderful close control. Sit too far off of him and he can kill you with his passing. In effect, Delph and Cazorla are the symbols of their teams and their respective styles. He who manages to set the pattern will likely walk away with the cup.
BENTEKE v MERTESCIELNY
There is little doubt where the majority is Villa’s threat is invested. As Mike Field told us on Tuesday, so much of Villa’s play goes through the Belgian in terms of both his finishing and Villa’s build up play. As I have stated above, Benteke likes to draw centre halves out towards the halfway line to give the likes of Agbonlahor, Scott Sinclair and Fabian Delph space to run into. In this respect, you would imagine that Benteke will try to attach himself to Per Mertesacker, whose recovery pace is notoriously cumbersome.
Sherwood and Benteke will be only too aware of Arsenal’s tendency to concede headed goals. Nearly 40% of the goals they conceded in the league came from headers. With wide supply from Sinclair, N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor, Benteke will look to anchor himself to Bellerin or Monreal on the back post. The Belgian is a frightening aerial presence in the penalty area, 4 of his 15 goals this season have been headers, all a result of delivery from wide. Benteke’s most notable strength strikes at the heart of Arsenal’s most obvious weakness. A pant filling thought.
MESUT ÖZIL v ASHLEY WESTWOOD
Özil has enjoyed matches against Aston Villa to date. He was the architect of the Gunners’ 3-0 win at Villa Park in September, with a goal and an assist. The German matched those numbers in the 5-0 victory over the same side at the Emirates in February, as he lay waste to Paul Lambert’s high line. Whilst Villa re unlikely to play their defence on the halfway line again, Sherwood has strongly intimated that his side will not set up purely to spoil, “Let’s go toe to toe and see what happens. I think we have got the character – glass half full.
“We haven’t got the players to dig it out. Simple as that. We haven’t got players to sit behind the ball and catch them on the counter attack.” That being the case, young Ashley Westwood will have quite the job containing Mesut Özil. On occasion, it has looked as though the German’s feathers can be ruffled by crowding him quickly the instant he receives the ball. Westwood is going to have to try and disrupt Özil and not allow him to establish any sort of rhythm. Otherwise, Mesut’s record suggests that he will create multiple goalscoring opportunities for teammates (he created a tournament high of 9 vs Reading).
Villa’s route to Wembley
4th January, 2015. Villa Park. Aston Villa 1 (Benteke ’88) Blackpool 0.
In front of a crowd of just 21,000 at Villa Park, Villa’s F.A. Cup run got off to an inauspicious start as they limped to an unconvincing home victory over Championship crisis club Blackpool. Played during the underwhelming final weeks of Lambert’s reign, the home side needed a late winner from Benteke to prevent a fourth consecutive game without a goal at Villa Park. It was however, their first clean sheet in 16 F.A. Cup matches.
25th January, 2015. Villa Park. Aston Villa 2 (Gil ’51, Weimann ’71) Bournemouth 1 (Wilson ’90).
Once again, it was seaside Championship opposition at home in the 4th round for Villa, but against a club on a very different trajectory to beleaguered Blackpool. Carles Gil set Villa on their way with a sumptuous strike https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyXYLh2Jh94 before Andreas Weimann sealed the result. The Cherries, who played a second string side, grabbed a stoppage time consolation through Calum Wilson.
15th February, 2015. Villa Park. Aston Villa 2 (Bacuna ’68, Sinclair ’89) Leicester City 1 (Kramaric ’90).
Manager in waiting Tim Sherwood watched on from the stands as Villa overcame Midlands rivals Leicester in round 5 at Villa Park. Once again, it took until the second half for the home side to open the scoring, with Sherwood permitted to give the half time team talk. Leandro Bacuna put Villa ahead with a curling shot and Scott Sinclair sealed the Foxes fate in the final minute. Andrej Kramaric’s injury time goal proved too little too late.
7th March, 2015. Villa Park. Aston Villa 2 (Delph ’51, Sinclair ’85) West Bromwich Albion 0.
Another home tie against another Midlands side in round 6 and a familiar pattern was established. The home side struggled to create in the first half, but broke through after the interval with Fabian Delph’s low finish. Claudio Yacob was sent off for the visitors before Scott Sinclair again wrapped up the result in the final few minutes. Jack Grealish was also sent off in injury time, but victory was Villa’s as the home fans poured onto the pitch in celebration at the final whistle.
19th April, 2015. Wembley Stadium. Aston Villa 2 (Benteke ’36, Delph ’54) Liverpool 1 (Coutinho ’30).
In possibly Tim Sherwood’s finest hour to date, Villa overturned Philippe Coutinho’s opening goal to deservedly defeat Liverpool at Wembley. Delph and Grealish combined beautifully to set Benteke up for the equaliser. Villa looked as though they had more belief than their opponents and took a deserved lead through Fabian Delph on 54 minutes. The Villains rode something of a storm in the final ten minutes, but held on to book their first F.A. Cup Final for 15 years.
Arsenal’s route to Wembley
4th January, 2015. Emirates Stadium. Arsenal 2 (Mertesacker ’20, Alexis ’82) Hull City 0.
In a subdued Sunday evening atmosphere, the Gunners eased into the 4th round by vanquishing last season’s final opponents Hull City. This was a rather more serene occasion, with the visitors almost visibly bristling at the inconvenience of the fixture. Per Mertesacker headed Arsenal into the lead from an Alexis corner. A scratch Hull side barely threatened at all and were finally killed off by a powerful strike from Alexis with eight minutes left.
25th January, 2015. Amex Arena. Brighton & Hove Albion 2 (O’Grady ’50, Baldock ’75) Arsenal 3 (Walcott ‘2, Özil ’24, Rosicky ’59).
A repeat of the 2013 fourth round brought exactly the same scoreline as it had two years previously. The visitors dominated the first half with smart finishes from Walcott and Özil putting them in the ascendancy. Having offered little threat, the home side were gifted a life line through O’Grady, before the imperious Tomas Rosicky clattered a wonderful first time volley past David Stockdale. That really ought to have sealed it, but the Gunners switched off again to allow Sam Baldock to set up a grand finale. The Gunners held on and, arguably, just as significantly, Manchester City and Chelsea both stumbled out of the competition this same weekend.
15th February, 2015. Emirates Stadium. Arsenal 2 (Giroud ’27, ’29) Middlesbrough 0.
Arsenal sailed through to the F.A. Cup quarter-finals with a pair of quickfire goals from Olivier Giroud. Firstly he swept Kieran Gibbs’ pull back past Boro keeper Osorio. Just 100 seconds later, the Frenchman was alive to Alexis’ quickly taken corner to sweep a beautiful first time side footed volley home from a tight angle. Brazilian centre-half Gabriel made his Gunners debut in this tie.
9th March, 2015. Old Trafford. Manchester United 1 (Rooney ’29), Arsenal 2 (Monreal ’25, Welbeck ’61).
United academy graduate Danny Welbeck dominated the pre and post-match narrative for this one. Starting ahead of the in-form Olivier Giroud in the central striker berth, his second half goal was enough to give Arsenal a memorable victory over his old club. Nacho Monreal had put the Gunners ahead with a nicely worked opener, before Rooney headed United level. But Welbeck was alive to Antonio Valencia’s underhit back pass to round de Gea and stroke the ball into an unguarded net to again send Arsenal to Wembley.
18th April, 2015. Wembley Stadium. Arsenal 2 (Alexis ’39, ‘105) Reading 1 (McLeary ’54). AET.
For the second consecutive year, Arsenal found Championship opposition tough going in the semi-final. But Arsenal’s cup run has been dominated by individual contributions. Alexis grabbed a goal and an assist in round 3, Rosicky matched this feat in a man of the match display against Brighton in Round 4. Olivier Giroud eliminated Boro with two swipes of his left boot, whilst Danny Welbeck hogged the headlines in the quarter-final. Arsenal had Alexis to thank (and maybe Adam Federici too) as his two goals either side of Gareth McLeary’s equaliser saw the Gunners through to the final despite a below par performance.